NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Crime And Gun Control

June 5, 2001

Most Americans now believe the death penalty does not deter murders, says Stuart Taylor of the National Journal. So do more than 80 percent of leading criminologists, according to a 1996 survey. Indeed, some claim routine executions provoke more homicides than they prevent, by teaching that it is correct and appropriate to kill those who have gravely offended us.

But a new, major study by three Emory University economists contradicts the findings of most other academicians. The study is based on more recent and detailed data and (it appears) more sophisticated statistical techniques than any previous study.

  • The researchers conclude, "Our results suggest that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect.... In particular, each execution results, on average, in 18 fewer murders -- with a margin of error of plus and minus 10."
  • That means each execution saves at least eight lives, and perhaps as many as 28.
  • Only about one in every 150 killers -- and perhaps one in every 30 capital murderers -- is executed, often after more than 10 years of judicial appeals.

Thus it is not surprising that, as noted by Dudley Sharp of Justice for All, a Texas-based criminal justice reform group: "The major U.S. jurisdiction with the most executions is Harris County [Houston, Texas], which has seen a 73 percent decrease in murder rates since resuming executions in 1982 -- possibly the largest reduction for a major metropolitan area since that time."

While most homicides are probably not deterrable, common sense says some potential killers can be deterred. All criminal penalties are based on the theory that most (or at least many) criminals are somewhat rational actors who would prefer not to be imprisoned. And most are even keener about staying alive than about avoiding incarceration.

Source: Stuart Taylor Jr., " Does the Death Penalty Save Innocent Lives?" National Journal, May 26, 2001; Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul Rubin and Joanna Shepherd, "Does Capital Punishment Have a Deterrent Effect? New Evidence from Post-moratorium Panel Data," Emory University Department of Economics Working Paper 01-01, February 2001.

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